We nervous people are often too hard on ourselves when we have a setback. We may make phenomenal progress only to feel guilt and shame for giving into a compulsion, failing to spot symptoms and use our tools to address them, or for missing meetings. In essence, even in our journey toward becoming well we demand perfection of ourselves; we want to be exceptional and never make a mistake as we try to improve our mental health.
Yet Dr. Low reminds us that we are apprentices in recovery and, as such, we are constantly learning about how to address our symptoms (Low, 1995, pp. 57-64). Especially when we begin addressing our fears and triggers, we must expect setbacks, just as an apprentice will certainly make mistakes as he/she learns a trade. We wouldn’t expect a plumber apprentice to know all the tools of the profession after only a week, a month, or even a year on the job, so we shouldn’t expect that we will be experts at recovering in similar time frames.
In fact, we are always training, continuously spotting our symptoms and using tools to address them. We are practicing, just as doctors practice medicine. Mistakes or setbacks are unavoidable but, as Dr. Low reminds us, the setback does not signal the return of the illness.
I prefer to use a setback as a learning opportunity. When I feel an old symptom creep back, such as the urge to double check that the stove is off, I don’t work myself up. Instead, I spot the symptom and use tools to get through—in this case, “Feelings are not facts."
Fearing the setback won’t make us healthier. Neither will anticipating them. But taking a realistic view of them certainly will.
Low, AA. (1995). Manage Your Fears, Manager Your Anger: A Psychiatrist Speaks. Willett: Glencoe, IL.